Moving beyond the binary; why focusing on skills versus knowledge is the wrong discussion

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Moving beyond the binary; why focusing on skills versus knowledge is the wrong discussion

By Dr Nina Hood

The Education Hub recently released a report, On Knowledge, which explores to contested place and role of knowledge in education. The report responds, in part, to the ongoing debate in New Zealand, and elsewhere around the world, between skills and knowledge in education.

Those on the skills side of the debate suggest that schools need to reorient themselves, to focus less on traditional subject areas and more on so called “21stcentury skills”, the soft skills or competencies that are considered essential for success in future life – problem solving, critical thinking, creativity. In contrast those on the knowledge side of the debate tend to favour more traditional approaches to disciplinary knowledge, suggesting that content knowledge (opposed to or at times in conjunction with skills) must lie at the heart of our schools.

There is a growing body of people, however, who are rejecting this binary view suggesting that the placing of skills and knowledge in opposition to one another creates a false dichotomy. Instead, as I would argue, skills and knowledge represent different sides of the same coin; with both essential to the education project.

Aristotelian philosophy offers a starting point for bringing together knowledge and skills. Aristotle developed a tripartite division of knowledge, which included: epistêmê (universal, theoretical knowledge); technê (‘know-how’); and phronesis (‘practical wisdom’). The distinction Aristotle draws between content-based knowledge on the one hand (know what and know why), and practical, tacit and situated knowledge (what one could call craft knowledge or skills) on the other hand, suggests that rather than being in tension with each other, content knowledge and skills each hold a distinct yet interconnected role in the conceptualisation of knowledge (and by extention learning).

The interconnected nature of knowledge and skills is further supported and explained in the cognitive psychology research on learning, what commonly is referred to as the science of learning.

Cognitive psychological research has demonstrated thatgeneral abilities, competencies and skills cannot be studied independently of content domains. For instance, while it is possible to teach general principles or approaches to problem solving, the ability to utilise these in response to a specific problem requires relevant content knowledge. This is because when undertaking particular tasks – such as writing an essay or solving a complex problem – if we do not have sufficient domain-specific knowledge, simply understanding the problem or task can take up most of our working memory, leaving limited space for devising solutions.

It is for this reason that we struggle to write an essay on a topic that we do not know well enough. While we may be familiar with the key components required in essay writing – an introduction, a clear argument, the use of paragraphs, etc. – our lack of knowledge on the topic of the essay puts too much pressure on our working memory. Similarly, a meta-analysis of 40 studies on ways to improve scientific problem-solving skills demonstrated that the most successful interventions focused on strengthening students’ knowledge base, while interventions focused on problem-solving strategies had little or no impact.[1]

So while it is our knowledge-base that enables us to effectively perform higher-order skills, the process of applying our knowledge (such as through problem solving) also helps us to consolidate our knowledge-base. It is through actively utilising a new piece of information that we are able to move beyond merely comprehending that information and committing it to our long-term memory so that it is retained overtime, to learning – that is using the newly gained information to do something. Knowledge is created and transformed through action. This suggests that we need to be developing in our students both a strong knowledge base as well as the skills to be able to apply this knowledge to address complex challenges and to innovate.

It is critical that New Zealand moves beyond a binary debate of knowledge versus skills, and instead recognises that both are essential to our education system.A person’s knowledge base determines both what and how easily they are able to learn, as well as their ability to demonstrate particular skills and higher-order learning. Understood in this light, knowledge is directly related to discussions of equity in education. So while increasing knowledge is not a silver bullet, it does represent an important component in building a more equitable education system.

[1]Taconis, R., Ferguson-Hessler, M. G. M., and Broekkamp, H. (2001). Teaching science problem solving: An overview of experimental work. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, 442–468.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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